Render to Caesar What Is Caesar’s — and to God What Is God’s

SCRIPTURES & ART: A look at the readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, through the eyes of Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Tribute Money,” ca. 1612
Peter Paul Rubens, “The Tribute Money,” ca. 1612 (photo: Public Domain)

All this year, Matthew’s Gospel has repeatedly talked about the “Kingdom of Heaven,” a Jewish way of avoiding to say “Kingdom of God” (since G-d should not be written or spoken). That means our relationship to God is conceived not just in individualistic relations (“Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior”) but communally: those who believe in and love God form a community, a communion of saints.

In that sense, allegiance to God entails a social dimension. That spiritual relationship seems, therefore, to be analogous to the temporal relationship we have under a leader or ruler in this world, i.e., the state. The impact of state, however, seems to be much more tangible: many people break God’s Law, thinking they can get away with it (since the consequences generally don’t ensue immediately). Break Uncle Sam’s, and the likelihood of your being called to account grows exponentially.

So, how we relate to these two communities — spiritual and temporal — is a basic question. It remains so even today, when the state attempts, in the name of “public health,” to dictate how one may worship. It was in Jesus’ day, when the question of to whom and with what one paid taxes expressed one’s allegiances.

Rome conquered Israel in 63 B.C. Israel always resisted Roman rule. That was partly because people want to rule themselves (every person is alteri incommunicabilis, a fancy way of saying that nobody can decide for me without my consent). It was also partly because of Israel’s self-concept: as participants in covenant with God, “you will be my people and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7). That relationship to the one true God was incompatible with other political relationships which also entailed religious commitments: to be loyal to Rome was to be loyal to Rome’s gods, who clearly must have supported Roman victory. For polytheistic lands, such arrangements posed no problem: one can always shove a few more idols into the temple. For monotheistic Israel, it was existentially impossible.

(It would also later be impossible for Christians in the first four centuries. The Christian situation was even more complicated because, unlike Israel, religion and land were not largely co-located. Christians lived all across the Empire and Christianity’s own mandate was to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19, emphasis added) wherever one was.)

Let’s consider the financial situation of the average Jew of Jesus’ day. He owed religious taxes to the Temple, but the Temple treasury could not be profaned with pagan money, so he had to exchange currency for “Temple money” (usually at rates advantageous to the Temple establishment). He owed taxes to the occupying Romans and their local lackies (Herodian kings and tetrarchs). Taxes in the ancient world were unlike taxes today. There was no “tax table” that the tax collector looked up to see what you owed. Tax collectors bid for collection districts, to which was assessed a sum due. Tax collectors needed to raise that amount but were free to surcharge additional fees for their own expenses: one was in trouble if the lifestyle to which one’s tax collector had grown accustomed was lavish. Such a system was open to graft and corruption, which is why “tax collector” is generally equated with “public sinner” in the New Testament.

Against this background and with the restive situation of Israel, the Pharisees “plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.” By raising the question of whether “is it lawful to pay … tax to Caesar or not,” they hoped to nail Jesus to one side of a divisive issue which would have adverse consequences regarding the other. To endorse outright payment of taxes to Caesar would alienate Jesus from most Jews, who regarded it as a form of cooperation with pagan occupation. To deny its lawfulness would be to set oneself into overt opposition to the ruling government.

Jesus skillfully acknowledges both spiritual and temporal allegiances by resolving that one should “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” without necessarily engaging in a division of property.

Now let’s be clear. While recognizing what Vatican II calls “the legitimate autonomy of earthly things” (such as governmental power), God and Caesar are not peers. Everything that Caesar has, including his power, comes from God. As Jesus reminds Pilate on Good Friday, “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above” (John 19:11). Caesar’s laws cannot take precedence over God’s.

I’ve recently raised the question of the adequacy of the “God-and-Caesar” language of this Sunday’s Gospel when it comes to discussions with people today about church and state relations. I’m not denying that language’s importance, but I am concerned that Christians use this terminology in ways that are increasingly unintelligible to Caesar as well as many of his subjects.

As I noted, when Jesus spoke those words, Caesar was a believer: he believed Rome’s gods were on his side. Sincere or skeptical, those Caesars recognized that a “god” had to be factored into the picture. Indeed, when they declared themselves to be gods, those Caesars recognized that title gave them status and prerogatives that even mere “emperor” did not confer.

That’s not the situation today. Today’s Caesars claim that “democracy” requires them to be secular, at least agnostic vis-à-vis God. Today’s Caesar, therefore, isn’t sure what gets rendered to him versus God because he doesn’t necessarily accept God or any of his claims. At best, God’s “interests” might be represented by his followers in terms of their religious freedom claims.

That’s a radically different scenario from what Jesus faced. It’s something with which we Christians need to grapple.

Today’s Gospel is depicted in art by the Flemish master of the Baroque, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). “The Tribute Money” was painted in oil about 1612. A large painting (about 4-1/2 by 6 feet), it is on exhibit at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

The physical center of the painting is the coin: the man in black holds it with his right hand, indicating whose image it bears with his left. The gaze of all of Jesus’ listeners (except for the fourth from the left in the background, whose eyes draw us into the picture) are focused either on each other, the coin or Jesus. One source thinks that man who draws us in is Rubens self-portrayed. (The same source thinks that bearded man on Jesus’ right who, like Jesus, is looking back at the crowd of “tempters,” may be St. Peter). Rubens captures the moment of reaction to Jesus’ response, something etched on the faces of those who hoped to trap him.

Jesus likewise points to the image on the coin with his right hand but, with his left, breaks us out of that money circle. His left hand, pointing to heaven, severs the focus on the coin, elevating his interlocutors’ attention from the things of Caesar (as important as they are) to the things of God. (The line from his bright red cloak up to that arm reinforces its length and leads the eye upward.) Jesus is also slightly larger than any of the Pharisees. And which image is more important: Caesar’s on a coin or God’s on the human person (Genesis 1:26-28)?

Caesar may have his claims, but none can trump those of God.